NASA research center opens 1st new lab in nearly 30 years

Placeholder when loading item promotions

HAMPTON, Va. — Even before they cut the ribbon, a tripod-mounted prototype sensor was tracking the sun on the roof of NASA-Langley Research Center’s newly opened Measurement Systems Lab.

Langley’s first new laboratory in nearly three decades officially opened on April 21st. But Charles Hill, a scientist with NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment, has already set up the program’s SAGE-IV prototype to see if it can bring a 30-year lifespan to the research program on an even larger scale.

SAGE-IV is a telescope-spectrometer combination that can look at sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and measure what invisible gaseous chemicals are there and what microscopic particles are floating around.

Hill believes it could replace the desk-sized SAGE III device, part of the external payload on the International Space Station, when it reaches the end of its useful life.

The prototype’s size opens up the possibility of using sensors in small satellites to collect so much more data over much larger regions — data that can track pollutants, greenhouse gases and ozone that affect climate and public health in general, he said .

The heart of the SAGE-IV is a roughly 10-by-20-by-12-inch box containing a small telescope, mirrors, and a spinning green plastic wheel that breaks up sunlight into different wavelengths that feed it into the box’s spectrometer. The way the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere mask or reveal the colors of sunlight tells Hill what’s in the air. Langley engineer Dave MacDonnell said his team developed the design and has been refining it for several years.

Hill was working just steps away from locations where other researchers will be working on laser-based LIDAR systems that will help spacecraft accurately map landing points when NASA returns to the moon and ventures to Mars, NASA-Langley- Director Clayton Turner.

These researchers will fire their lasers at the peninsula’s water towers and other structures to test accuracy, as well as into the sky to obtain readings of the atmosphere other than Hill’s SAGE-IV; They will work indoors, which they can shield behind thick black curtains.

Five floors below, in a classroom-sized metal box, Jay Ely investigates how high doses of radiation can disrupt aircraft electronics, navigation systems, and structures.

“It’s basically a giant microwave oven,” he said.

Thick, black curtains upstairs keep stray light rays from interfering with LIDAR lasers; The metal on the walls of his reverberation lab can reduce scattered radiation to a ten-billionth of the emitted radiation.

That keeps cell phones and electricity flowing through some of the nearly 20 miles of cables in the Measurement Systems Laboratory’s new building from distorting what Ely and his team are seeing — and also protects them when they go outside to find plane parts and systems can zap with potentially lethal doses of radiation.

Work at Measurement Systems’ new $95.6 million laboratory building includes sensor and antenna technologies critical to work on Langley’s personal aircraft programs, as well as test systems to further refine Langley’s computer models of aerodynamic flow and warming – the models that already exist led to the development of a prototype supersonic airliner that does not produce a deafening sonic boom.

A sensor jokingly dubbed the “proton torpedo” because it looks like something from Star Trek will collect data that researchers and engineers hope will help them develop new ways for planes to detect bad weather, others Avoiding airplanes and even lightning strikes.

The Measurement System Laboratory’s work on sensors and measurement instruments will support three key NASA missions: safely landing spacecraft and mapping the Moon and Mars, finding more efficient and safer ways to operate aircraft on Earth, and understanding Earth’s atmosphere and the climate, Turner said.

He said he believes the lab was designed and built “to encourage people to collaborate, to hear new ideas about how to do things… we don’t want people to just think about a gadget, we want that they think about how What we do will change people’s lives.”